Before I go, I have something to say

Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

Circle of friends

A few weeks ago, my old friend Candy posted a photo on Facebook. I was delighted by the picture and didn’t recall ever having seen it.

Then I read what Candy had written: “Circle of friends forever. Taken at one of our many slumber parties we had while at Williams Junior High. Clockwise from bottom: Jo, Joette, Jennee, Pam, and Candy. Today is a sad day as we learn of Jo’s passing. Say it’s not so. We love and miss her.”

I was shocked. What happened?  Candy told me Jolene had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, just started on the chemo, and died, apparently, of a bad reaction to the drug.

It had been years – decades – since I saw Jo, but we had reconnected on Facebook. We’d hunted for names from our past, sent out “friend” requests, and then wrote private messages to tell each other about our lives since we last hung out together.

Like many of my old girlfriends, she’d had a failed early marriage. Too many of us suffered some form of abuse, whether emotional, verbal, physical or simple neglect. But Jo had come through it not bitter but wise, compassionate, and loving. She urged me to  meet up with her in Davenport, but I never managed it. I told her about my headaches, and she was understanding. Now it seems a poor excuse.

We remained Facebook friends, trading stories and memories now and then. Although she had no children of her own, she doted on her twin niece and nephew. The posts on her news feed were always joyful and optimistic, even inspiring.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, from my vantage point of Too Old to Want to Admit It, it is this: It’s impossible to predict how a friend from your school years will turn out years later. That beautiful girl with all the boyfriends might become a nun. That whipsmart guy on the student council might end up a bum after one run-in with the law too many. You never know. Life is not a straight shot, and what energizes one person can pull another irretrievably down.

My daughter drove me to Jo’s visitation and funeral, on an unseasonably warm and sunny November Saturday. As we entered the funeral home, I wondered where we should go. A man at the door beat me to it, asking, “Are you looking for Jo?” and pointing to the right. He needn’t have bothered; the sound of the conversations would have drawn me there. Jo had a lot of friends, and I didn’t recognize any of them. I figured they could all have been people she met long after we parted ways, or they could have been old classmates I simply could not place.

So I went up to a few, asking, “Did you go to West?” and darned if I didn’t find them – people I had sat next to in Advanced Biology, people I had cheered on at track meets. Oh, there you are, I thought to myself, there’s that cute young guy, beneath the added pounds and the gray hair and beard. How good it is to see you!

It’s sad, of course, to realize how many people – family as well as friends – you only see at funerals. That day, only two of the girls in that picture could come, since Jennee and Joette live far away. I kept an eye out for Candy, and when she came in, I could tell she was looking for me, too. What a hug. What a history we had together.

So many songs have been written about loss, and so many frame their insights with circles. From the Lion King’s “Circle of Life,” to Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game,” to my favorite, “Full Circle” (written by Gene Clark, one of the original Byrds, who I saw in Davenport at age fourteen), the songs all speak of life and death as equally necessary processes, wheeling out of our control. If everybody lived forever, it would be awfully crowded around here. But to lose someone early – and believe me, sixty-one is young, no matter how old it might sound to a teenager – feels unfair, a shock, not playing by what ought to be the rules.

Some people, though, make a big difference even when their time here is short. At the funeral, I learned something awesome about Jo. When the minister invited people to speak, a tall man walked up and said a few words. “When I was in high school,” he said, “I was on the wrong path. But Jo became my friend, and set me straight.” Who was that man? I asked later. Someone told me his name, but it meant nothing to me.

Later, though, another classmate emailed to tell me the man’s high school nickname. Reading that email, I gasped as I remembered him. He was scary – older than us, and bad. Doomed, I figured, for a life on the skids. But someone had saved him. Jo had, somehow, helped him see the light. And there he was at her funeral, sharing his gratitude for this splendid thing she had done for him and, no doubt, others.

Thinking back to that Byrds concert, the only friend I could remember going with was Jennee. So I wrote to her, and learned that Jo and Joette had been there, too. I took lots of pictures of the musicians, when I should have taken them of the friends who meant so much more to me then, and now.

This circle of friends, each one looking so pretty and smart and happy in the photo – is it broken? No, I don’t think so. Jo is much more in my heart now than ever. Singly or together, we remain unbroken.

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